Welcome to lesson two of Fundamentals of Filmmaking Success!
After lesson one, you should have a solid, specific idea for what direction you want to travel in your career. If you missed that one, go back and do it! Because if you don’t know what your target is, how on earth do you expect to hit it?
With that in mind, today we’re going to talk about one of my favorite topics: the art of focusing more of your energy on the things that actually matter.
So first, a quick reminder…
The only way to make real progress in our careers is to do the work. I can’t stress this enough. There’s no overnight success. There’s no magic pill you can take to wake up the next morning with the film career you’ve always wanted. You’ve got to do the work, plain and simple.
And doing the work simply means investing your time and energy in a way that will move you towards your goals.
So here’s a tough, but important question for you. Are you investing your time and energy on the activities that will actually make a difference in your career?
For a lot of the filmmakers I know, much of our spare time and energy are being spent on reading blog post after blog post, perusing forums and facebook groups and reddit, watching short films and YouTube videos, dreaming about films we want to make, and all sorts of things that feel good in the moment.
But we all know these types of activities don’t actually move the needle. In fact, if we invest too much of our time into these things, it’s a perfect recipe for spinning our wheels and going nowhere.
Here’s what to do instead.
The magical art of narrowing your focus
In The ONE Thing (a seminal book on productivity and achieving big goals), Gary Keller lays out a case for focusing your energy as narrowly as possible. Here's what he means by that.
“When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same. Go small.
“Going small” is ignoring all the things you could do and doing what you should do. It’s recognizing that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most. It’s realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.
The way to get the most out of your work and your life is to go as small as possible…
When you go as small as possible, you’ll be staring at one thing. And that’s the point.”
I can’t stress just how crucial this idea is for making progress in our film careers.
Not all work is important work. Being “busy” working towards your goals means literally nothing if you’re focused on the wrong things.
If you want to succeed, you need to identify those few actions that will actually make a difference, then you need to do them consistently (which is what lesson three is all about).
So this leaves the all-important question: how do you find the work that matters most?
Luckily, Keller doesn't leave us hanging on this question. Instead, he gives us a powerful tool that we can use not only to find the small bits of important work, but also the larger direction in our careers and lives.
You simply ask yourself what he calls The Focusing Question:
"What's the one thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?"
This question is deceptively simple, but if you answer it honestly and concretely, it will give you the most impactful thing to work on right now.
Let’s take a trip to Example Town, USA to see how this works.
The Focusing Question in Action
Let's say you're an indie filmmaker who's looking to make a living from your original films.
There are all sorts of activities you could pursue with this particular definition of success. You could write scripts and make films. You could network and schmooze with other filmmakers, agents, potential investors, etc. You could work on honing your skills and building up a unique artistic voice.
All of these things seem like reasonable and productive ways to spend your time.
That’s why you’d ask yourself the Focusing Question: What's the one thing I can focus on, such that by doing it, everything else in my film career will be easier or unnecessary?
In this case, there are a couple of different directions you could take this, depending on whether you want to make "indie films" within the context of the industry, or you want to be truly independent of the industry and make a living outside of it.
Presuming you're part of the latter group, the single most impactful activity you could focus on is building an online audience. More specifically, you’d want to build an email list of people who want to hear from you and watch your films. That’s the gold standard.
This enables a couple of things:
- You’re able to sell films (and merchandise) directly to your audience without any middle men.
- You become far more attractive to traditional distributors because it means they have less marketing to do to recoup their costs.
- Finding investors for projects becomes easier because you can make a stronger case for why your film will actually make money.
- Crowdfunding becomes easier because you already have a relationship with the people who love your work.
- You can generate income through other means, such as Patreon.
- And generally speaking, having an audience opens you up to all sorts of unforeseen opportunities you’d never have otherwise.
Basically, having an audience is one of the absolute best things you can do if you want to make a living from original work. An audience gives you a more substantial chance at succeeding within the industry, and it gives you the option to skip the industry entirely and make a living on your own.
Literally no other way of investing your time will have that kind of impact. Thanks Focusing Question!
Using the Focusing Question to drill even deeper
Once you've used the Focusing Question to identify which activity to focus on at any given point in your career, it's time to use it to get even more specific and granular. Now it's time to find the most important work within the activity itself.
So let's go back to our indie filmmaking example. If your most important goal right now is building an email list of true fans, what's the one thing you could focus on, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Like before, there are literally a gajillion different things you could focus on. You could... build your value proposition for your email list, be a guest on niche podcasts and blogs, post in niche online communities, make content of different types, promote that content, run facebook ads, etc.
Now, obviously there are going to be numerous things you need to focus on in order to get that email list built. It's not like you can just focus in on one of them and call it good.
That's why in this case, your one thing should be a daily process, one that consists of creating content for your niche audience, making sure that content leads back to your email list, posting and promoting that content in channels where your ideal audience hangs out, and interacting with people in those communities.
It sounds like a lot, but this small, repeatable process is something you could do in as little as 20 minutes a day. And it would make a massive impact on your ability to build an audience. Thanks again, Focusing Question!
I know this example is fairly specific, but this line of thinking is applicable no matter where you’re trying to go in your career.
- If you work in the film industry, your most important work will likely be making connections with people above you.
- If you’re a freelancer or run a production company, your most important work will involve finding and reaching out to new clients (and keeping your existing clients happy).
- If you’re just getting started in film, your most important work will probably just be honing your skills and making micro films.
And within each of those broad activities, you can use the Focusing Question to get even more specific and find the few key things that truly matter.
No matter what you want to accomplish in the world of film, a few core activities will be responsible for the vast majority of your progress. If you can identify these activities and then do them consistently, you’ll kick a lot of ass in your career. I promise.
What if I don't know my career path yet?
There’s just one big drawback to the Focusing Question. It only works if you’ve got a good understanding of your career path. If you’re switching careers, or you’re new to filmmaking, you probably won’t have the knowledge required to make the Focusing Question work.
Don’t worry though. I’ve got a handy process you can use in this situation. It should help you identify the most important work, even if you have no clue what you’re doing right now.
Here’s the basic outline of the process to get this figured out.
- Take your definition of success, and do some research to find other filmmakers who are 2–3 steps ahead of you in achieving that same thing.
- Reach out to them directly. Nothing fancy or complicated. Just some pleasant chatting online. Twitter’s not useful for many things, but it’s great for this. Quick, friendly emails work too. As does facebook.
- Once you’re relatively acquainted with them (and them with you), ask what skills, practices, and goals helped them most in getting where they currently are in their career. Ask them what things they’d prioritize if they only had an hour a day.
- Gather as much of this data as possible and look for recurring themes. When you see ideas and practices show up again and again, it’s a good indication it’s something you should be focusing on.
- Bonus step: Make a weekly habit of reaching out to filmmakers and asking about key practices to focus on. This will help with research, of course, but it’s also a great way to add valuable contacts to your network.
Ok, so there are a few things to note about this strategy.
First up, it’s really, really important to find filmmakers who are on the same career trajectory as you. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting advice that won’t lead you towards your definition of success, but towards something else entirely. And that’s no bueno.
For instance, if you’re looking to produce freelance work for mid-sized companies, it makes no sense to reach out to folks who work in television production. If you’re looking for narrative indie filmmaking success, it doesn’t make sense to reach out to wedding filmmakers.
So choose people who are clearly on the same path as you. This is the best way to ensure you’ll get useful answers when you ask what skills and practices to prioritize.
The other big part of this is that ideally you want to talk to filmmakers who are only a few steps ahead of you in their careers.
I recommend this for two reasons.
First, the super high-level people are going to be the hardest to reach. Don’t count on getting Christopher Nolan himself to respond to your tweets, no matter how persistent and polite you are.
Second, those high-level folks aren’t usually the best to talk with anyway. They’re successful, sure, but they’re usually so far removed from the process it took to achieve that success that they’ll be hard pressed to offer you something concrete and relevant to work on.
If you asked them to identify the key skills and practices an aspiring filmmaker should take right now, in 2017, they’re less likely to give a good answer than someone who was just working on those skills within the past few years.
So again, shoot for reaching out to people who are just a few steps ahead of you. Not only will they be easier to reach and more willing to help you, but their advice will be significantly more valuable and relevant.
As much as I want to dive into the specifics of how to reach out to higher profile people and strike up conversations with them, this email is already long enough. So if you’re interested in best practices for that, Nathalie Sejean has a great article on her site about it. Just google “How to Reach Out to Powerful People and Develop a lasting Relationship” and it’ll be the first result.
Good luck, and godspeed.
Your homework, should you choose to accept it
Like the first lesson, I’ve got a homework assignment for you. It’s a few interactive workbook questions designed to get you thinking about how you spend your time. Trust me, these questions are tough, but worth it!